The Decision to Divorce: Telling the Children

By ROBERT E. LEE, PhD., A.B.P.R

“Telling the children” is not a single event. it is an arduous process, involving information, abreaction, and nurture that may and should extend over a substantial period of time. However even though its a central part of the supportive role of the parents, many divorcing adults understandably may wish to avoid it. They are aware that their children will be frightened and angry at the same time that they themselves are feeling buffered by their ordeal. So they are reticent to open up one more complex problem area; one more painful thing with which they as parents must cope at this stressful time. Nevertheless, it is very important that the children be informed completely and be given opportunity to fully express their own concerns and feelings. The end result is for the child to both understand and adapt to the subsequent changes in his or her life.

When Do You Tell the Children?

Because they recognize how upsetting their divorce will be on the children, many parents wonder if there is a “best time” to get a divorce – a certain age at which children can best handle the situation. unfortunately, age of the child at the time of divorce doesn’t determine the child’s long-term adjustment. However, age does determine the shape of the initial response to the news, the average duration of that response, and perhaps what aspects of the divorce are most relevant to that child. Therefore, the age of the child should be considered in providing the appropriate explanation of the parental decision, in taking care of the child emotionally and establishing the appropriate post-divorce family arrangements.

Of course, because the children will be so upset, it is prudent to be certain that the decision to divorce is firmly established before anything is said to the children. Beyond that, the state of the parents may be the most important thing. When they tell the children, the parents need to be ready to provide appropriate supports for the children and to make and carry out plans. Standing in the way of this is the diminished parenting that occurs because one or both adults are devastated by grief, anger and worry, preoccupied with their own problems, and spread thin by unshared responsibilities.

What Do you Tell the Children?

It is important to keep the children out of the marital battle. However there also is an important link between the child’s success in coping and his or her capacity to understand the divorce and make good sense out of the sequence of disruptive events in the family. The children need to feel that the parents have a rational direction and are not driven by impulse or hatred. The child does best when the child understands the divorce as a carefully thought out solution to an important problem, and it looks like it in tact will bring relief and a happier outcome to one or both parents. Since the children are afraid, two additional things are necessary: an adequate explanation of what is going on, and assurance of continuing care. The child needs to know what the divorce is about and how he or she will be affected. That is, where the family will live, what plans are being made for them to continue to see both parents, and all the many details of life which the children are concerned about, are of significance to them, or have implications for them. The youngest children, especially, need to know that the custodial parent is going to be sound (that is, capable of taking care of the child). In addition, all children can benefit if the parents believe that the divorce is a family crisis, to be solved by the family.

The Children’s Immediate Reaction to the News

The first thing to recognize is that the reality and reactions of the children may not be those of the adults. Secondly they will not get over matters quickly and easily. Children have a common immediate reaction to the news: No matter how much they “should have expected it,” they are shocked. This is because marriages that have been unhappy for the adults have been reasonably comfortable, even gratifying, for the children. Solid parenting can, and often does, go on within a very deprived and unhappy marriage Parents who don’t love each other nevertheless love their children deeply and often the parenuchild relationship compensates for what is not found in the marriage. Consequently many children may not be that concerned about their parents’ marital unhappiness, and in fact few children concur with their parents’ decision to divorce.

Although each child feels uniquely burdened, certain things are common to all of them. They’re scared, worried and angry. They experience a heightened sense of their own vulnerability (“Who will feed and protect me? Now and in the future?”) They worry who will be the custodial parent, and whether he or she will be “all right” (that is, be able to take care of the child). They also worry over the parent who will be leaving (“Who will cook for him?”), and whether they will ever see him or her again. Finally they are angry. They resent the powerful and apparently selfish adults destroying their home.

Besides these common reactions, each child’s personal response will be a product of that child’s personality and his or her age. The age of the child governs the child’s need for the parents, perception of the stress, ability to understand, and coping strategies.

“Telling the child” has the best results when it is undertaken thoughtfully by parents who have recognized and thought through the expectable psychological, social and logistic consequences for themselves and for the children, and who have the interest, talent, time, and energy to provide comfort and appropriate understanding to the children – for as long as it takes.
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References

Esber, F. 0. (1974) Divorce: The new freedom. New York: Harper and Row.

Nichols, W. C. (1984) Therapeutic needs of children in family system reorganization. Journal of Divorce, 7 (4) 23-44.

Wallerstein, J. S., and Kelly, A. 8. (1980) Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce
New York: Basic Books.

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